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New London Families Pack Forum On Immigrant Rights

Harriet Jones
The audience at CB Jennings Elementary listens to a presentation on the rights of undocumented immigrants.

The New London public school system hopes to pass an emergency policy this week that will safeguard undocumented children on school campuses in the city. Meanwhile, hundreds of people turned out at a community forum organized by the school district Monday night. "We are taking this action today to send a message to all New London families, that regardless of background or status, the city and the school district will do everything it can to protect all of you," Jeannie Milstein, New London’s director of human services, told the standing-room-only crowd in the gymnasium at CB Jennings Elementary School.

Scott Garbini, President of the Board of Education, said the forum was prompted directly by parents.

"We’ve had some families that have called in and said, 'We don’t want to send our child to school today -- we’re concerned that either we may not be home, or that they’re going to get taken away when they’re at school,'" he said. "To know that it is 2017, and we’re living in a day and age where that is a concern of a child, disgusts me."

Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR
Cards given out to the crowd Monday that can be used in an encounter with an immigration enforcement officer.

New London is a small district, with just over 3,000 students, but its families speak more than 26 languages, and it is home to many undocumented students.

"We view diversity as a tremendous asset," said Superintendent Manuel Rivera. "We also have a mission to educate all of our kids. Every single one of our students that comes through that door, we give them our best. And so we wanted them to know that their children can feel safe, and we wanted the students to know that they’re safe in our schools."

As well as a message of reassurance, the forum aimed to give families direct, practical advice about how to prepare for possible encounters with immigration enforcement officers, and what to do if they are detained.

Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR
Attorney Michael Doyle gives advice at the end of the event.

"Talk to your children, talk to your families, everyone should know what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to speak up for your children, or on behalf of your children," Attorney Michael Doyle told the crowd. He runs the Immigration and Advocacy Support Center in New London.

He advised undocumented families to learn their rights and make an emergency plan, including keeping written records, memorizing phone numbers, and preparing powers of attorney.

People in the audience asked intensely practical questions -- What would ICE agents look like? Were they allowed to film as they were arrested? What would happen to their children if they were detained?

Doyle said the last month has been unlike anything he’s ever seen with worried families contacting his office. "I’m overwhelmed, I don’t know how else to say it," he told WNPR. "It’s been - I haven’t slept. It’s crazy - it’s crazy."

He said so far, there’s been only one recent detention by ICE in the region, but he’s extremely fearful for the future. "I strongly believe, and I don’t know if anyone can dispute, that we’ve just taken perhaps the largest step towards a police state -- that we’ve taken since the internment camps back around World War II."

Superintendent Rivera said he believes the response Monday proves the need for this kind of intervention from the city.

"If we reach a handful of parents tonight -- and obviously there was significantly more than a handful of people here tonight -- then that’s a good sign, that’s a good thing, because they’ll be able to communicate with others who might have even feared coming here tonight," he said.

The school board will meet on Thursday to finalize an emergency protocol instructing all staff how to proceed if immigration officers attempt to detain students on school grounds.

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